So much storytelling in popular culture, musical theater included, relies on the narrative usefulness and emotional exploitation of the delayed secret. And “Dear Evan Hansen” would be nothing without it.
At his therapist’s urging, high school senior Evan, dealing with social anxiety disorder and a harsh self-image, writes letters of reassurance and encouragement to himself. After a tense encounter at school, one of these letters ends up in the hands of another troubled senior, a boy Evan hardly knows even though Evan has been nursing a crush on the boy’s sister for what feels to Evan like forever.
The boy, Connor, commits suicide very early in “Dear Evan Hansen.” His grieving parents assume Evan’s letter to himself, found in their late son’s possession, was written by Connor to Evan, and that the boys were supportive, understanding friends.
The lie spirals. Evan doesn’t have the heart or the nerve to correct Connor’s family’s reading of the situation. Then the hash-tagged phenomenon #TheConnorProject, designed to help all sorts of kids in crisis and in need, goes viral, far beyond the intensely clique-y high school. Evan’s dodgy act of atonement builds up his own social capital. For most of the musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2016, we watch Evan as he’s singing, dodging, aching, riding for the inevitable fall.
Was the fall of the film version also inevitable?
Maybe. Mainly, the movie we have here reminds us that what works on a stage, within the non-realistic world and performance momentum of stage musicals, lessens a lot of story problems that movies tend to heighten.
Director Stephen Chbosky’s film already has gotten a ton of grief for Tony-winner Ben Platt’s performance in the title role. Yes, he’s 27, playing a teenager (26 when it was filmed, though just out of his teens when “Dear Evan Hansen” was first workshopped). Stockard Channing was 34 when the movie version of “Grease” came out. That didn’t kill that movie. Ray Bolger played an Oxford student on screen in “Where’s Charley?” — like Platt, he re-created his Tony Award-winning stage triumph — at the age of 48. Ideal? No. But there it is.
The issue with “Dear Evan Hansen,” I think, is more about where a first-time director of screen musicals puts the camera, frames the actors and builds the numbers. All of that comes after the work on the script, adapted by the stage version’s librettist Steven Levenson. Four songs from the Broadway score by the seriously talented “La La Land” and “Greatest Showman” songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have been cut. Happens all the time, though four’s a lot. The film version starts out like an unapologetic musical and then, for too long, apologizes for being one.
The role of Alana, Evan’s eventual comrade in #TheConnorProject, has been amplified and given a new song, “The Anonymous Ones,” sung honestly and well by Amandla Stenberg. The movie opens with “Waving Through a Window,” which replaces “Anybody Have a Map?” and firmly centers things around Evan and Platt.
The supporting cast includes Amy Adams as Connor’s mother; Kaitlyn Dever as Connor’s sister; Nik Dodani as Jared Kalwani, who was Jared Kleinman in the stage version; and Julianne Moore as Evan’s mother. Dever and Moore come off best in the most plainly sympathetic roles, and they handle the songs with forthright, slightly banked emotion.
Why isn’t this movie more satisfying? Partly it’s the willful excruciation of the story’s premise. The delayed secret is the hangnail: It won’t end well. Partly it’s Chbosky straining, visually, to keep a movie audience close to the emotional lives of the characters without crowding them. Around the midpoint of “Dear Evan Hansen” things like Platt’s hair (Harpo Marx, circa “A Night in Casablanca”), overcompensating body language (hunched shoulders to look younger, and less secure) and tendency to do the crying for us start competing with his confident vocal attack.
The movie adds an extended coda, new since Broadway: Now, Evan atones for his actions, and everyone’s let in on the deception, not just an inner circle of the betrayed. This helps with the audience empathy (for some a lot, for others not enough) but puts the running time at 137 minutes. Again: not necessarily a deal-breaker. Here, it feels long.
“Dear Evan Hansen” preserves many of the selling points of its stage incarnation. But “preserves” isn’t the same as “activates.”
‘DEAR EVAN HANSEN’
2 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive references)
Running time: 2:17
Where to watch: Premieres Friday in theaters